In the aftermath of the Civil War, American citizens turned their eyes from the war-torn east to the open prairies of the west where new opportunities awaited them. Thousands of men and women embarked on cross-country journeys, but they encountered fierce opposition from Native Americans who wished to preserve their way of life. A clash of cultures subsequently erupted. Today, interest in the Indian Wars often centers on the Northern Plains and the battles to force the Sioux onto reservations. The principle character in these events is the colorful, and controversial, General George Armstrong Custer of the U.S. 7th Cavalry. For ten years, he led his soldiers into battle across the plains before making his “Last Stand” along the Little Bighorn River in Montana. He was not the only great Indian fighter, however. There was another officer who was just as famous and, quite honestly, more successful. Serving on the Southern Plains, he ferociously dogged the Indians and refused to relent until they were forced to surrender. His name was Ranald Mackenzie. This is the story of a matchless warrior who fought and subdued the Comanches and Kiowas on the frontiers of the wild west.
Claiming a proud military heritage, it was natural for Ranald Slidell Mackenzie to seek a life of glory and national service. He was born in Mount Pleasant, New York in late June 1840 to a father whose lineage dated back to fierce Scottish warriors and a mother who was descended from Revolutionary War General William Alexander, Lord Sterling. As a boy, he listened to his father’s tales of serving in the infant U.S. Navy under Oliver Hazard Perry. No doubt inspired by these tales, Ranald told his father he intended to pursue a career in the U.S. Army. It was an ambition the older Mackenzie cultivated by securing his son a spot at Mount Pleasant Academy. There young Ranald donned his first uniform and learned rudimentary discipline. He went on to attend Williams College in Massachusetts where he authored an article on military tactics for the Junior Exhibition before applying to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He arrived at the storied institution in March 1858 and proved an excellent cadet and student, as shown by his high academic ranking. Ranald also thrived amid the harsh nature of academy life and began to view the military as his second family. He graduated in June 1862 number one in his class and, with the Civil War in its second bloody year, was assigned to the Union’s Army of the Potomac as a second lieutenant. Not long after, he established himself as one of the Army’s rising stars.
Despite initially serving in the Corps of Engineers, within a year, Ranald Mackenzie had won the admiration of his superiors for his bravery under fire. He first displayed gallantry at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862 when he undertook the hazardous duty of acting as a courier. While delivering orders, he was wounded in the right shoulder and spent the night alone on the battlefield before being discovered and sent home to recuperate. He rejoined the army less than two months later to find he had won a brevet (temporary) promotion to first lieutenant. Advancement to captain followed in May 1863 for meritorious conduct at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Then came the climactic July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. On July 2nd it was Ranald who delivered General Gouverneur Warren’s orders to Colonel Strong Vincent and his subordinate Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain to secure the Army’s imperiled left flank on Little Round Top from imminent Confederate attack. While leading the troops forward, he received his second wound and his third brevet promotion. His actions possibly saved the Union and marked him as a candidate for greater responsibility.
In 1864 Ranald was promoted to colonel and left the engineers for a combat command. He was to head the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, which had lost its commander during the bloodbath at the Battle of Cold Harbor. On June 22nd he led his men in attacking Confederate entrenchments surrounding Petersburg, Virginia. During the fighting, Ranald was wounded in his right hand, resulting in the amputation of his first two fingers and giving rise to the name later bestowed by the Indians — “Bad Hand.” A month later, along with the rest of the Union Sixth Corps, he repulsed Confederate General Jubal Early’s attack on Washington, D.C. and then joined General Philip Sheridan’s campaign to destroy Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. His greatest success came at the October Battle of Cedar Creek when he rallied the 2nd Brigade following a surprise attack and led the troops in routing the enemy. His unsurpassed courage, heightened by the fact he was wounded three times but refused to leave the field, resulted in his elevation to brigadier general. In March 1865 he assumed command of the Army of the James’ Cavalry Division and led the cavalrymen in capturing the critical railroad juncture at Five Forks, Virginia. He then joined in pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and ensured Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th. For his efforts in the war’s last days, Ranald Mackenzie was promoted to brevet major general. His actions in the Civil War alone were enough to make him a national hero. The end of the war, however, did not equate to a slide into obscurity, for his greatest success was yet to come.
Ranald refused to allow the end of the Civil War to deter his service to his country, and he soon trained his sights on a new enemy. He rejoined the Corps of Engineers as a captain in the regular army, but he quickly grew unsatisfied with such mundane work after the thrill of combat. He appealed to General Grant for active duty, and in March 1867 he was promoted to colonel of the 41st Infantry, later the 24th Infantry, one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments. He briefly served in the “Reconstruction” South before transferring to west Texas to protect the inhabitants from Comanche and Kiowa attacks. With the eastward deployment of troops during the Civil War years, these tribes had roamed the region with bloodthirsty impunity. In 1871 he assumed command of the 4th Cavalry at Fort Richardson, near modern-day Jacksboro, Texas. He threw himself into preparing his troops to take on some of the greatest light cavalrymen in the world. As he settled in at the post, he received regular reports of attacks on wagon trains, and in response, he led chases against the warriors. Convinced only a vigorous campaign would end the threat to frontier settlement, he pressured his superiors to let him advance on Comanche and Kiowa villages in the Texas Panhandle and along the Red River. That fall Ranald launched two back-to-back expeditions. While unable to decisively engage the Indians, he refused to abandon his tenacious pursuit of the enemy, clashing with small, independent bands on a frequent basis. He tempered tenaciousness with prudency, however, as when he broke off pursuit of Comanches to seek shelter from a Texas norther blowing rain, sleet, and snow rather than continue on and risk annihilation. These characteristics served him well in the coming months as he faced the Indians in open combat for the first time.
After spending the winter of 1871-72 at Fort Richardson, Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry rode onto the rugged high plains of the Texas “Llano Estacado.” In addition to opening the land up for settlement, the campaign ensured renegade Comanches and Kiowas would no longer find a safe haven there. In the aftermath of the expedition, Ranald was informed that Comanche and Kiowa warriors had left the Fort Sill, Oklahoma reservation. He immediately set out in pursuit. On September 29th he discovered a Comanche village along the North Fork of the Red River and ordered his men to attack. As he had countless times during the Civil War, Mackenzie was in the forefront of the charge as the 4th drove into the heart of the village. Seeing eighty warriors inside a crescent moon ravine, he led his men towards the enemy. He drew his pistol and, alongside his troops, he fired as the Indians charged his position, inflicting heavy casualties. Minutes later the Comanches withdrew, leaving Ranald 120 prisoners and 262 lodges. His smashing victory not only garnered him lavish praise from his commanders and the public alike but also opened up further opportunities
By 1874 Ranald Mackenzie was considered one of the nation’s foremost Indian fighters, so it was only natural the army looked to him to spearhead a campaign to end the Indian menace once and for all. That fall he led a force of cavalry and infantry against a village of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes, often keeping close enough to spot warriors trailing behind the main body. On September 28th he looked down on the village from the rim of Palo Duro Canyon, near present-day Amarillo, Texas, and ordered his troops down a narrow trail to the valley below. As they descended, an Indian sentry shouted the alarm, but rather than attack, the warriors raced to evacuate the noncombatants and horses. Ranald took advantage of the unfolding pandemonium and pushed his men forward. After sweeping through the village, he ordered most of his troopers to attack the warriors who had taken cover in the canyon’s rocky crevices. To keep from being trapped, he dispatched one company to engage Indian braves threatening his rear while another company dashed forward to capture the Indians’ horse herd. Soon the Indians were fleeing, and he turned to destroying the lodges, food and other supplies. Mackenzie had achieved a stunning victory, but he did not rest on his laurels. He ordered the pursuit to continue, and in the weeks to come, his men engaged the splintered bands. The campaign’s grueling pace wore down men and horses, particularly Mackenzie who already suffered from rheumatism, but he refused to let up. The fierce campaign forced many Comanches and Kiowas to abandon their life on the plains, but some still clung to their traditional ways. Before leaving the Southern Plains, therefore, Colonel Mackenzie had one last battle to wage.
In early 1875 Ranald was transferred from Texas to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and was charged with bringing in the last holdouts to peace. He stationed elements of the 4th Cavalry at Fort Reno and Camp Elliot on Sweetwater Creek in Wheeler County, Texas as well as at Fort Sill. With the support of the army’s two senior commanders, Generals Philip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman, he was determined to complete the mission he had started the year before. The few remaining Indians, however, would not simply await their annihilation. Realizing their inability to sustain a second aggressive expedition, nearly 200 tribesmen capitulated. Ranald was pleased by this acquiescence, but he knew he could not rest until one final renegade band, feared Chief Quanah Parker’s Quahada Comanches, laid down their arms. Eager to end the fighting once and for all but always cognizant of the threat, Colonel Mackenzie dispatched J.J. Sturms to meet with the Comanches and urge their surrender. Unwilling to rely solely on negotiations, however, he developed a military strategy to facilitate their defeat. He intended to advance on the Indian camp, and once in position, he would give battle if the Indians resisted. In preparation for this last great campaign, he gathered his forces, including horses capable of making 70-80 miles per day. These preparations proved unnecessary. Spurred by Sturms’ entreaties and the knowledge Mackenzie would pursue them until they were utterly destroyed, Quanah and his people decided to submit. On June 2, 1875 three hundred Comanches rode into Fort Sill and surrendered to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, thereby ending the Indian Wars on the Southern Plains.
Although victory was finally achieved, Ranald’s service on the western frontier was not over yet. After the Quahadas surrendered, he oversaw their transition to life on the reservation and earned their respect by dealing generously and forthrightly with them. He also developed a close rapport with Comanche leaders, most especially Quanah Parker. In mid-1876, however, he was ordered to the Northern Plains to participate in the winter campaign designed to subjugate the Sioux and Cheyenne following George Custer’s death on the Little Bighorn. On November 25th Mackenzie attacked Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife’s camp along the Red Fork of the Powder River in Wyoming. After heavy fighting, he drove the Indians into the nearby Bighorn Mountains and destroyed the village. His actions forced Dull Knife to surrender in April 1877, and other bands soon followed suit. With the Northern tribes now pacified, Mackenzie served as commander of the District of New Mexico headquartered in Santa Fe where he directed military operations against Apaches. His heroism throughout the Indian Wars finally resulted in a long-coveted promotion to brigadier general in October 1882. Sadly, in March 1884 his career was cut short when he was forcibly retired after exhibiting erratic shifts in behavior, many believing the once gallant officer on the verge of insanity but more likely being the result of neurological disease or injury. Despite his subsequent retreat from the public eye, he remained popular with those inhabitants he had defended throughout his long and faithful service. That admiration was manifested in January 1889 when the nation’s newspapers reported the passing of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. His burial in the cemetery at West Point befitted a man once known as “the most promising young officer in the army.”
Throughout his professional life, Ranald Mackenzie was known as one of the most fearless officers in the U.S. Army. He entered military service at a critical time in America’s existence, and virtually his entire career was marked by war. He personally led his troops into combat on countless Civil War battlefields, and he took that same dedication with him to the western prairies. Arguably the greatest Indian fighter ever, he energetically and tirelessly fought the country’s native opponents until they had no choice but to relinquish their war-like ways. Wherever he went and whatever he did, his enemies came to understand that Ranald Slidell Mackenzie was a warrior without equal.